Postcard from... Charleroi


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The Independent Online

The Belgian city has been fighting a long battle to emerge from its past. The former coal and steel town was plunged into a spiral of unemployment and social deprivation after the collapse of its industries in the post-war decades.

Its reputation as one of the most depressing places in Europe was sealed in the 1990s when it emerged that serial killer Marc Dutroux kept many of his young victims in the cellar of his home. The town, 50 miles south of Brussels, was so maligned that a resident started excursions taking tourists on an “urban safari” of its sights.

But a charismatic mayor has made it his mission to turn around the city’s fortunes. Using culture as a driver for change, Charleroi has opened one of Europe’s largest photography museums, while a contemporary dance company and new art spaces are also gaining attention.

Now that very culture has thrust the more tawdry aspects of the city back into the spotlight. Last month a series of pictures of Charleroi by the Italian photographer, Giovanni Troilo, won a World Press Photo award. Entitled “The Dark Heart of Europe”, the images depict the stereotypes of the city – a woman in a cage, police on the streets, a grossly obese man watching TV.

The mayor, Paul Magnette, was outraged and wrote to World Press Photo claiming the images were “a serious distortion of reality” and accusing the photographer of staging some shots.

The World Press Photo withdrew the award this week, saying that one location had been misrepresented.